August 18, 2003 12:00 PM

“Look at me now,” says Diana Small-wood as she stands at a podium wearing a new suit and a million-dollar smile, “I’m going to college!” Not so long ago that declaration could have passed for a joke. A single mom who has supported her three young sons on child support and minimum wage jobs, she dropped out of school in the 10th grade. But on June 21, when Smallwood, 32, graduated from New Opportunity School for Women (NOSW), a crash course in self-esteem designed to jump-start the lives of Appalachian women, anything seemed possible. “I want to get a master’s degree,” she says, “and by the time I’m 40, I’m going to have it.”

To be sure, Smallwood and her 13 classmates still have a long way to go. But now they have dreams. Headquartered in Berea, Ky., NOSW is open to middle-aged women, most of whom make $10,000 or less—hardly traditional candidates for higher education. But by exposing small groups of students to a heady mix of free instruction in job hunting, public speaking, literature—even self-defense and personal style—founder Jane Stephenson, a former college administrator who started NOSW in 1987, aims to offer them a brighter future. “These women are so bright, they just haven’t had the opportunity,” says Stephenson, 65. “We can change lives in three weeks.”

Smallwood is a case in point. Raised in poverty, she insists she has few pleasant memories of her youth, much of it spent in foster and group homes. After leaving school at 17, she wed at 19 and divorced at 30. Until recently she worked 12-hour shifts at a label factory to make the $265 rent on a trailer she shares with sons Billy, 11, C.J., 10, and Tyler, 8. But even with extra money from her fiancé, trucker Charlie Gross (who has two children of his own), the family was barely scraping by. “McDonald’s is a luxury for us,” she says.

Then last spring a worker at her sons’ school told Smallwood about NOSW. Smallwood applied—and won one of two places reserved for women who live in and around Berea. (The others, drawn from all over Appalachia, move into a dorm.) For the next three weeks, Smallwood experienced a radical change: She helped build a house for Habitat for Humanity, she stayed up until midnight reading novels with strong Appalachian heroines and took classes like Getting to Know Your Local Government. Field trips included visits to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Kentucky Horse Park. “Part of me was scared to step into these places,” she admits. “Will I be good enough? Will I be presentable? I’ve never been to a museum in my life!”

But by graduation Smallwood had found a new sense of self-assurance. She is working toward her GED and hopes to study computer science at Eastern Kentucky University. According to Stephenson, roughly 75 percent of NOSW’s nearly 400 alums have continued their studies or found new jobs, in many cases by building on their experience as caregivers to enter the social service sector. “[They] develop skills they never knew they had,” says Judi Patton, the wife of Kentucky’s governor and a supporter of the program.

They also keep in touch. “Once you’ve been in the program, you’re part of the family,” says Stephenson, who retired as director several years ago but still teaches and helps raise the $225,000 annual budget from individuals and foundations. “If we don’t hear from you, we call and say, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Smallwood, for one, is betting she’ll have good news to report. “I feel like this is The Wizard of Oz, and they’ve given us the tools we need,” she says. “It’s like, okay, here’s your courage.”

J.D. Heyman

Lauren Comander in Berea

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